CHINA EXPANDS VERTICALLY, INDIA HORIZONTALLY
Al Bahr al Hindi is what the Arabs called the ocean in their old navigational treatises. The Indian Ocean and its tributary waters bear the imprint of that great, proselytizing wave of Islam that spread from its Red Sea base across the longitudes to India and as far as Indonesia and Malaysia, so a map of these seas is central to a historical understanding of the faith. This is a geography that encompasses, going from west to east, the Red Sea, Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal, and Java and South China seas. Here, in our day, are located the violence- and famine-plagued nations of the Horn of Africa, the geopolitical challenges of Iraq and Iran, the fissuring fundamentalist cauldron of Pakistan, economically rising India and its teetering neighbors Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, despotic Burma (over which a contest looms between China and India), and Thailand, through which the Chinese and Japanese, too, may help finance a canal sometime in this century that will affect the Asian balance of power in their favor. Indeed, the canal is just one of several projects on the drawing board, including land bridges and pipelines, that aim to unite the Indian Ocean with the western Pacific.
On the Indian Ocean's western shores, we have the emerging and volatile democracies of East Africa, as well as anarchic Somalia; almost four thousand miles away on its eastern shores the evolving, post-fundamentalist face of Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world. No image epitomizes the spirit of our borderless world, with its civilizational competition on one hand and intense, inarticulate yearning for unity on the other, as much as an Indian Ocean map.
Water, unlike land, bears no trace of history, no message really, but the very act of crossing and recrossing it makes this ocean, in the words of Harvard professor of history Sugata Bose, a "symbol of universal humanity." There are Indian and Chinese, Arab and Persian trading arrangements creating a grand network of cross-oceanic communal ties, brought even closer over the centuries by the monsoon winds and, in the case of the Arabs, Persians, and other Muslims, by the haj pilgrimage. This is truly a global ocean, its shores home to an agglomeration of peoples of the fast-developing former "third world," but not to any superpower: unlike the Atlantic and Pacific. Here is the most useful quarter of the earth to contemplate, pace Fareed Zakaria, a "post-American" world in the wake of the Cold War and the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Rudyard Kipling's turn of phrase "east of Suez"-from the 1890 poem "Mandalay," which begins in Moulmein in Burma, on the Bay of Bengal-applies more than ever, though few may realize it.
Cold War military maps highlighted the Arctic, owing to the geography of the Soviet Union and its principal ports. Former president George W. Bush's so-called war on terrorism underscored the Greater Middle East. But the geopolitical map of the world keeps evolving. The arc of crisis is everywhere: a warming Arctic could even become a zone of contention. Because the entire globe is simply too general an instrument to focus on, thus it helps to have a specific cartographic image in mind that includes the majority of world trouble spots, while at the same time focusing on the nexus of terrorism, energy flows, and environmental emergencies such as the 2004 tsunami. Just as phrases matter for good or for bad-"the Cold War," "the clash of civilizations"-so do maps. The right map provides a spatial view of world politics that can deduce future trends. Although developments in finance and technology encourage global thinking, we are still at the mercy of geography, as the artificiality of Iraq and Pakistan attest.
Americans, in particular, are barely aware of the Indian Ocean, concentrated as they are, because of their own geography, on the Atlantic and the Pacific. World War II and the Cold War confirmed this bias, with Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, the Soviet Union, Korea, and Communist China all with Atlantic or Pacific orientations. This bias is embedded in mapping conventions: Mercator projections tend to place the Western Hemisphere in the middle, so the Indian Ocean is often split up at the far edges of the map. Yet, it is this ocean to which Marco Polo devoted almost an entire book of his travels near the end of the thirteenth century, from Java and Sumatra to Aden and Dhofar. Herein lies the entire arc of Islam, from the eastern fringe of the Sahara Desert to the Indonesian archipelago; thus it follows that the struggle against terrorism and anarchy (which includes piracy) focuses broadly on these tropical waters, between the Suez Canal and Southeast Asia. The Indian Ocean littoral, which takes in Somalia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan, constitutes a veritable networking map of al-Qaeda, as well as one of disparate groups smuggling hashish and other contraband. Indeed, Iran has supplied Hamas by a sea route from the Persian Gulf to Sudan, and then overland through Egypt.
Here, too, are the principal oil shipping lanes, as well as the main navigational choke points of world commerce-the Straits of Bab el Mandeb, Hormuz, and Malacca. Forty percent of seaborne crude oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz at one end of the ocean, and 50 percent of the world's merchant fleet capacity is hosted at the Strait of Malacca, at the other end, making the Indian Ocean the globe's busiest and most important interstate.
Throughout history, sea routes have been more important than land ones, writes Tufts University scholar Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, because they carry more goods more economically. The sea silk route from Venice to Japan across the Indian Ocean in the medieval and early modern centuries was as important as the silk route proper across Central Asia. "Whoever is lord of Malacca has his hands on the throat of Venice," went the saying. Another proverb had it that if the world were an egg, Hormuz was its yoke.
Today, despite the jet and information age, 90 percent of global commerce and two thirds of all petroleum supplies travel by sea. Globalization relies ultimately on shipping containers, and the Indian Ocean accounts for one half of all the world's container traffic. Moreover, the Indian Ocean rimland from the Middle East to the Pacific accounts for 70 percent of the traffic of petroleum products for the entire world. Indian Ocean tanker routes between the Persian Gulf and South and East Asia are becoming clogged, as hundreds of millions of Indians and Chinese join the global middle class, necessitating vast consumption of oil. The world's energy needs will rise by 50 percent by 2030, and almost half of that consumption will come from India and China. India-soon to become the world's fourth largest energy consumer after the United States, China, and Japan-is dependent on oil for more than 90 percent of its energy needs, and 90 percent of that oil will soon come from the Persian Gulf by way of the Arabian Sea. Indeed, before 2025, India will overtake Japan as the world's third largest net importer of oil after the United States and China. And as India must satisfy a population that will be the most populous in the world before the middle of this century, its coal imports from Mozambique, in the southwestern Indian Ocean, are set to increase dramatically, adding to the coal that India already imports from Indian Ocean countries such as South Africa, Indonesia, and Australia. In the future, India-bound ships will also be carrying enormous quantities of liquefied natural gas across the western half of the Indian Ocean from southern Africa, even as it continues to import gas from Qatar, Malaysia, and Indonesia. This is how African poverty may be partially assuaged: less by Western foreign aid than by robust trade with the richer areas of the former third world.
Then there is China, whose demand for crude oil doubled between 1995 and 2005, and will double again in the coming decade or two, as it imports 7.3 million barrels of crude daily by 2020-half of Saudi Arabia's planned output. More than 85 percent of that China-bound oil will pass across the span of the Indian Ocean through the Strait of Malacca: the reason China is desperate for alternative energy routes to the Pacific, as well as overland ones into China from Central Asia, Pakistan, and Burma. The combined appetites of China, Japan, and South Korea for Persian Gulf oil already make the Strait of Malacca home to half of world oil flows and close to a quarter of global trade.
"No ocean is in need of strategic stability more than the Indian Ocean, which is arguably the most nuclearized of the seven seas," notes the defense analyst Thomas P.M. Barnett. "Among the nuclear powers whose navies ply this ocean are the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and Israel."
The Indian Ocean is where the rivalry between the United States and China in the Pacific interlocks with the regional rivalry between China and India, and also with America's fight against Islamic terrorism in the Middle East, which includes America's attempt to contain Iran. Whenever U.S. Navy warships have bombed Iraq or Afghanistan, they have often done so from the Indian Ocean. The U.S. Air Force guards Iraq and Afghanistan from bases in the Persian Gulf, and from the island of Diego Garcia, smack in the center of the Indian Ocean. Any American strike against Iran-and its aftershocks, regarding the flow of oil-will have an Indian Ocean address. The same with responses to any upheaval in Saudi Arabia; or in the teeming, water- starved tinderbox of Yemen, home to twenty-two million people and eighty million firearms.
The U.S. Navy's new maritime strategy, unveiled in October 2007 at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, both states and implies that the navy will henceforth seek a sustained, forward presence in the Indian Ocean and adjacent western Pacific, but less so in the Atlantic. The U.S. Marine Corps "Vision and Strategy" statement, unveiled in June 2008, covering the years to 2025, also concludes in so many words that the Indian Ocean and its adjacent waters will be a central theater of conflict and competition. Along with its continued dominance in the Pacific, the U.S. clearly seeks to be the preeminent South Asian power. This signals a momentous historical shift away from the North Atlantic and Europe. The United States may not control events inside the "big sandbox" of the Middle East, but, as the military analyst Ralph Peters suggests, it will compensate by trying to dominate the doors in and out of the sandbox-the Straits of Hormuz and Bab el Mandeb: choke points where the naval presence of India and China will be expanding alongside America's own.
India's and China's aspirations for great-power status, as well as their quest for energy security, have compelled them "to redirect their gazes from land to the seas," write James R. Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara, associate professors at the U.S. Naval War College. Meanwhile, as Holmes and Yoshihara also note, there are "lingering questions over the sustainability of American primacy on the high seas," something that has guaranteed commercial maritime stability for decades, and has, therefore, been taken for granted, even as globalization itself has depended upon it. If we are entering a phase of history in which several nations will share dominance of the high seas, rather than one as in the recent past, then the Indian Ocean will play center stage to this more dynamic and unstable configuration.
While China seeks to expand its influence vertically, that is, reaching southward down to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, India seeks to expand its influence horizontally, reaching eastward and westward to the borders of Victorian age British India, parallel to the Indian Ocean. Chinese president Hu Jintao, according to one report, has bemoaned China's sea-lane vulnerability, referring to it as his country's "Malacca dilemma," a dependence on the narrow and vulnerable Strait of Malacca for oil imports from which China must somehow escape. It is an old fear, for Ming China's world was disrupted in 1511 when the Portuguese conquered Malacca. In the twenty- first century an escape from the Malacca dilemma means, among other things, eventually using Indian Ocean ports to transport oil and other energy products via roads and pipelines northward into the heart of China, so that tankers do not all have to sail through the Strait of Malacca to reach their destination. This is just one reason why China wants desperately to integrate Taiwan into its dominion, so that it can redirect its naval energies to the Indian Ocean.
The Chinese military's so-called string of pearls strategy for the Indian Ocean features the construction of a large port and listening post at the Pakistani port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea, where the Chinese could monitor ship traffic through the Strait of Hormuz. There could be another Chinese-utilized port in Pakistan, at Pasni, seventy- five miles east of Gwadar and joined to it by a new highway. At Hambantota, on the southern coast of Sri Lanka, the Chinese seem to be building the oil-age equivalent of a coaling station for their ships. At the Bangladeshi port of Chittagong on the Bay of Bengal, Chinese companies have been active in developing the container port facility, where China might also be seeking naval access. In Burma, where the Chinese have given billions of dollars in military assistance to the ruling junta, Beijing is building and upgrading commercial and naval bases; constructing road, waterway, and pipeline links from the Bay of Bengal to China's Yunnan Province; and operating surveillance facilities on the Coco Islands deep in the Bay of Bengal. A number of these ports are closer to cities in central and western China than those cities are to Beijing and Shanghai. Such Indian Ocean ports, with north-south road and rail links, would help economically liberate landlocked inner China. China is reaching southward and westward, evinced by a seemingly improbable railway it hopes to construct linking its westernmost provinces-across some of the highest terrain in the world-to a copper-producing region of Afghanistan south of Kabul.
Of course, one must be extremely careful in judging China's actions in this region. What the Chinese actually plan for the Indian Ocean is still far from clear and open to debate. Some in Washington are skeptical of the whole notion of a string-of-pearls strategy. Overt bases do not conform with China's nonhegemonic, benign view of itself. The Chinese are rarely seeking outright control, standing by, as in the case of Gwadar, as the Port of Singapore Authority prepares to run the facility for decades to come. (Though, as one Singaporean official told me, his country is tiny and thus no threat to China at Gwadar.) Many
Copyright © 2010 by Robert D. Kaplan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.